The EU referendum campaign: a case of fateful information illiteracy?

As the EU Referendum draws near, Stéphane Goldstein (CILIP IL Group’s Advocacy and Outreach Officer and Executive Director of InformAll) examines how information (il)literacy has a key role to play in UK voters’ ability to sort fact from fiction ahead of the crucial vote.

Image: Dave Kellam (CC-BY-SA) / Flickr

In less than a week, the UK electorate will be called upon to reach what is arguably the most momentous political decision in a generation. The result of the referendum on membership of the European Union will have a huge bearing not just on the future of this country, but conceivably on the nature of the European project itself. And yet, our votes will be cast on the basis of very low levels awareness about the real issues at stake. Rarely has information literacy – or, in this instance, the lack of it – been so pertinent in a political context. As reported by Mike Berry, from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, the British are dangerously ill-informed about the EU referendum. He was referring to research undertaken by the Electoral Commission early this year, but more recent evidence is just as grim. As recently as early June, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) found that less than a quarter of the electorate claims to be well-informed about the EU. In the words of the ERS Deputy Chief Executive, Darren Hughes,

“Voters have been completely left in the dark on what the real issues at stake are in this referendum – instead they’ve had a debate dominated by personality politics, party spats, and name-calling. The tone of the debate has been overwhelmingly negative, turning voters off from the conversation. The public want to hear about the issues and policies that affect them, but instead have been subjected to a Westminster parlour game.”

Depressing enough? There’s more… British media coverage of Europe is letting voters down, according to Christopher Meyer, professor of European and International politics at King’s College London, who also reminds us that British citizens are the least well-informed in Europe when it comes to contextual understanding of the EU (Luxembourg and Slovenia come top of this particular little league table). As Lauren Smith, from the University of Strathclyde, points out in a previous blog post on these pages, young people – whose future, after all, is most at stake – are the least informed of all about the EU referendum.  And initial findings from work recently undertaken by Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture demonstrate “the narrowness of news coverage of the referendum so far. Reporting mostly focused on the process and conduct of the campaign, and in particular the personal rivalries it has exposed at the heart of the government.” So the news coverage is about personalities, rather than substance (although, interestingly, the same research places coverage of the economy/business above the emotive issue of immigration/border controls).

It’s not just the poor awareness and understanding that’s worrying. The referendum debate, these past few months, has been characterised by exaggeration, misinformation, downright myths and the spread of fear; both sides of the debate have used arguments and invectives that appear designed to frighten electors, or at least to deepen their anxieties. And even when the media don’t resort to such shock tactics, the relentless repetition of partisan messages can also have an insidious effect. As the Guardian commentator Roy Greenslade put it in his assessment of the Eurosceptic press,

“It is […] all about repetition, finding ways of reinforcing those prejudices day after day after day. The message must be hammered home relentlessly with news stories, leading articles, commentaries and cartoons. By playing to the gallery in a drip-drip-drip process over months, if not years, newspapers have an impact on readers who never think about, let alone question, the propaganda they consume.”

Should we really believe that we face the prospect of being overwhelmed by unending waves of migrants from Turkey; that the EU is condemning cancer victims to early death; and that Brussels bureaucrats are setting their sights on (horror of horrors) banning our kettles? Conversely, will Brexit ultimately lead to the destruction of Western political civilisation and, even worse in the eyes of some, a collapse in UK property prices? I could go on ad nauseam (sometimes, those being economical with the truth get caught out and are forced to apologise, witness a story run by The Sun newspaper, in February, on an alleged but fictitious European Court of Justice ruling (see ‘corrections and clarifications’) – but such retractions are rare, and don’t make front page news). In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that citizens are confused and bewildered. These stories can easily take root in an electorate that does not have sufficient command of relevant information; and as social psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky has aptly pointed out, misinformation carries societal costs.

To be fair, valiant attempts have been made to inject objectivity, balance and, dare I say, a degree of sanity into the debate. The UK in a Changing Europe project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, provides a portal for authoritative sources on UK-EU relations, including material collated under the rubric ‘EU referendum: everything you need to know’.  The EU referendum fact-checker, compiled by the Full Fact independent charity, is an excellent and well-written resource in its own right. For dedicated souls, the University of Stirling even runs a MOOC on ‘Remain or leave’. The mainstream media also get in on the act: both the BBC and ITV run fact-checking analyses on their respective websites. And on a sometimes surreal note, the European Commission has compiled an archive of debunked Euro-myths – almost 700 of them; my favourite is the one about EU regulations forcing cows to wear nappies, courtesy of (you’ve guessed it) The Daily Mail.

Sadly, as suggested by the arguments earlier in this post, it is doubtful that these laudable initiatives are having much of an impact. Electors may be following their hearts rather than their heads, according to Ben Page, the Chief Executive of polling organisation Ipsos Mori. Is this true? Difficult to say, but with so much confusion and lack of knowledge about the issues, it wouldn’t be surprising if citizens reach views that are not based on reliable information and reasoning. My own limited, personal experience of the campaign (I must admit it: I’m involved in the remain campaign) suggests that – on the basis of random conversations with electors in a very multicultural part of London – there is indeed much emotive talk about being swamped by foreigners and losing control of our borders; but it’s also true that some electors at least are willing to listen and engage on issues, not just impressions.

We will find out soon enough where this leads us. But whatever the result, we are left with the troubling thought that a truly fateful decision with long-term consequences will be made on the basis of what can only be termed information illiteracy.

Happy referendum, everyone!

Stéphane Goldstein

Advocacy & Outreach Officer, CILIP Information Literacy Group

Executive Director, InformAll CIC

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